Rock Instrumental Songwriting

Many guitarists, after about six to twelve months on the instrument, can create original riffs and lead lines without much difficulty. Good guitar teachers always stress improvisation as an essential skill to learn, since it gives the guitarist the ability to jam with friends and begin to create an original style. However, there is a knowledge gap between being able to create original guitar riffs and being able to write complete songs. Take it from Vivian Campbell, a guitarist currently with Def Leppard. When he first hooked up with Ronnie James Dio, he was a great guitar player, but by his own admission, he couldn't write a complete song. He just had no idea how to proceed from riffing to structuring a song based upon those riffs.

This article is directed toward guitarists who have either not yet begun to write songs, or are just beginning compositions and are looking for another songwriting method or set of tools to assist in the song construction process. Every songwriter or composer has a slightly different method of writing songs; they all work, but some methods work better than others for some people. I hope this method will help those guitarists who wish to compose music in the rock instrumental style. You could easily write lyrics to go with the songs you write with this method, but as I am personally unfamiliar with lyric writing, I am concentrating this article on the instrumental aspects of the songwriting process.

Step 1: The Song Structure

My method consists of beginning a new song with what I call a 'song structure'. A song structure is nothing more than a template or initial framework for a song which can include some or all of the following elements:

  • Major song sections
  • Chord progressions
  • Style of music
  • Tempo suggestions
  • Instrumentation suggestions

The advantages of starting songs with this approach are:

  • You don't necessarily need to have an instrument in your hands
  • You can work quickly to structure several songs in a short period of time
  • Decisions about melody are postponed until later

Writing song structures works well for musicians who are what I call 'note takers'. In other words, musicians who love coming up with riffs or short melodies, and simply record little bits and pieces onto a cassette or a digital medium. They can write several song structures and then go back through their tapes of original riffs and rhythms to find something to fit into a given section of the song.

To test out the idea of writing songs away from my instrument (something I had never tried before), I took out some paper on a plane trip from Chicago to Raleigh, and in an hour I had sketched out seven song structures. For me, being away from my guitar gave me a new freedom I had never experienced before. I was letting my imagination structure the song, instead of my fingers. On these particular songs, I was not specific about chord progressions; I simply designated entire sections by a single chord. For example, I would designate the first section of the song, "the E minor section", followed perhaps by a 12-bar section in A major. My idea was to put off until later the choice of a chord progression to fit the section.

Here is an entire example from one of the song structures written on the plane:

"Musical Work #5" - Medium Rock (110-130 bpm)

Section Key/Prog Bars Style Notes
Intro Em 8 ----- Low sustained bass (or synth) intro with heavily distorted plucked guitar chords that fade in and out like a wave. No drums, except short drum into the A section.
A Em 16 ----- 4 bar melody repeated 4 times with expressive changes each repeat.
B A major 12 ----- Write melody in Dorian mode.
A Em 16 ----- Harmonized melody (in spots).
B A major 12 ----- Vary melody slightly from first B section, and add low bass notes underneath.
C Em 12 reggae C section is like the chorus of the song. Use clean reggae-like chording.
Break None 8 ----- Drum break/solo, with bass lead-in to guitar solo.
Guitar solo 1 F#m 4 ----- Heavily distorted grunge sound.
Guitar solo 2 Gm 4 ----- Compressed, semi-dirty wah-wah sound.
Guitar solo 3 Am 4 ----- Rhythm solo, all double-string.
Guitar solo 4 Bm 4 ----- Return with heavily distorted grunge sound.
C Em 12 reggae Repeat of chorus, with guitar fills added.
A Em 16 ----- Similar to second A section, vary rhythm guitar underneath.
B A major 12 ----- Vary melody slightly from first two B sections, and add low bass notes underneath.
C Em 12 reggae Repeat of chorus.
C Em 12 reggae Fade-out chorus.

So after this song structure was completed, I knew I had a song of about 164 bars, mainly in the key of Em, with a 16 bar solo section that modulated through 4 different keys. On this particular piece, a lot of the details of the song and its final instrumentation were left for later. Notice, I did get specific in some areas about the guitar sounds I wanted to use or the type of rhythm guitar I wanted to try. I also included a note about using the Dorian mode for the melody in one section; the purpose was to make sure I tried something I normally wouldn't do if just grabbed the guitar and started jamming. It forced me to go home and figure out exactly what the Dorian mode is, and how to use it over A major!

See, brainstorming with your pen is a major benefit for songwriters who begin to get stuck and can't seem to write something new. You can write down anything you want. You can write down things that are odd or concepts you have no idea how you will make work, simply to get yourself to try something new. For example, on one structure I wrote, I put a note for one section that read, "Do something Chinese here." On another I stated, "Make the last two bars of this sound like World War III, using just the guitar." Another read, "The melody here should be oceanic". My goal was to give myself something to think about when I finally go into the studio to flush out the details of the songs.

I also kept in mind that good music is usually equal parts surprise and predictability. When I designated a section as the 'A' or 'B' section, I intended to repeat those sections at different points in the song (with some variation) to make the song more memorable. Some sections like intros, breaks, guitar solos, and bridges (a non-repeated section, typically placed before the solos), were intended to occur only once, providing the surprise elements and adding interest.

Of course, once you begin creating the actual chord progressions and melodies, you are free to change any and all of what you had come up with originally. The idea of the song structure is not to 'box' you into a very restrictive creative corner, but to put a few limits around the infinite possibilities one has when starting a song from scratch. However, it's fun to see a bass player or drummer try to put into real music a section which is labeled, "New Orleans Industrial at stepped-up tempo". If all the musicians try their best to actualize what you have brainstormed into a song structure, you may be amazed at what you finally come up with.

Step 2: The Demo

The next action I take, after I have several song structures, is the demo phase. My goal here is to write and record all of the melody, rhythm, background, and solo parts. In order to make make this step go quickly, I don't concern myself at all with the overall sound or performance quality of the parts. Obsessing with perfection at this stage will only lengthen the process. I write music as I play it, so this works great for me; as soon as the idea for the melody strikes me, I record it. As long as there are no real clunkers in the performance, I move on to write the rhythm parts or work on the bass parts. Working in this way allows me to demo songs rather rapidly, as I spend most of my time choosing the best versions from the various parts I come up with, instead of concentrating on perfect technique or timing.

If you are relying on other musicians to help you put the demo down, remember to tell them that the idea is not to capture a great performance, but to take chances and come up with original parts that can be improved upon or perfected later.

I personally like to write music with a rhythmic bed of drums and bass already established. Other songwriters like starting with simple chord changes or a basic melody. Since I have my song structure already in place, I find it's easy to put down a drum and bass track to outline the song from start to finish. I can include tempo changes and any rhythmic variations in my rhythm tracks that will help me write the proper guitar and keyboard parts that fit the character of the song. Some drum machines, keyboards, and software packages allow you to demo a simple song by entering chord changes, choosing a style of music, and selecting a tempo. This is a fast way of getting a groove going that can help you write rhythm parts and melodies as if you had a group of session musicians at your disposal - 24 hours a day!

If you have ideas for songs that you have previously recorded to a cassette, the demo phase is the best time to pull out the tapes and start going through the ideas to see what might fit for the song you want to demo. A lot of songwriters pull new ideas from previously recorded songs or old demos that were never completed. Some people call it, "stealing from yourself." It's a good habit to be a 'pack rat' as far as saving old material you have recorded or written, because that raw material may become quite useful in the most unlikely of situations. The more you record, the more source material you will have to bring to the studio when demoing new songs.

When all the parts have been written and recorded, I usually step back and listen to the entire song several times through to see how all of the demo parts fit together. Usually, some parts do not fit after hearing them in the context of the song as a whole, so they are usually rewritten or discarded. When you have the demo completed you may wish to solicit feedback from other musicians or friends who can offer some good ideas for you to think about when you eventually turn the demo into a polished master.

The only time it may be important for you to pay attention to the quality of the demo is when you are planning to send it off for evaluation by record labels, in the hopes of securing a deal. In theory, a good A&R person can hear a great song through a poorly recorded or performed demo, but it's not worth risking your chance for a fair shot by submitting something you have put together rather quickly.

Step 3: The Finished Song

The final step in the process of songwriting varies on your goals. Are you interested in the compositional aspects of songwriting only, or do you plan to release the final song on a CD or cassette? If your goal is the composition itself, the final step is the transcription of the song into traditional music notation and/or guitar tabulature. You may also wish to clean up aspects of the demo that are, in your own judgement, substandard, and not up the quality of the rest of the demo. This will become important if you decide to submit your song to other musicians or a publishing company, and they prefer to evaluate your song on the basis of a completed demo. If your goal is to include the song on a released recording, it's time to go into the studio, hire some great musicians, and rerecord the song, part by part. The final studio recording is when attention to detail and quality is appropriate, and is why many artists spend a great deal of time recording and mixing an album.

A lot of times certain demo tracks will have been nailed perfectly, due in part to the fact that they were recorded in a relaxed way, without pressure, and they simply captured the spirit of the songwriter's intent. If something sounds good, leave it in. There is certainly no need to rerecord everything.

You may also find yourself changing the parts you had previously written or even rearranging the song structure, possibly for the third time. This is good, and it's the main reason I like to include the demo phase instead of going right from a basic outline of a song to the finished product. It gives me more time to decide if everything is really turning out the way I want it to be. Remember, these songs are totally your own creations; you can do anything, and you should always make sure your own songs give you pleasure when you hear them.

One last point to keep in mind as you are finishing up your masterworks: a song is never really done. Every painter, writer, composer, or sculpter has to finally admit that even though it is always possible to improve that which is not perfect, you have to let go of the work at some point, and declare it complete. Otherwise you could spend your entire life on your first album, just trying different 'possibilites'. Accept that every record ever released could have been improved upon with another several weeks in the studio; at the same time, realize that they could have ruined a great record with a few more weeks in the studio. Step back, listen, and if it hits you hard at some level, or brings a smile to your face, or gets your feet moving, declare it complete and move on. We all want to hear what you've got!

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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